The 10th president of Berea College, Cheryl Nixon, has done many things over the course of her career. She’s been a dishwasher, a college professor, a department chair, a provost and a college vice president. While some people know who they are and who they want to be early in life, Nixon had to find her way.
And to do that, she had to find herself.

She was, at her heart, a literary person, a person who found joy in reading, of imagining the far-off time and space of a story and its characters and putting herself among them through the written word.

But one can’t really do that for a job, she thought. 

Her favorite book—the one in her collection that is the most ragged and dogeared from use—was “Moll Flanders,” the 1722 novel by Daniel Defoe. In it, the title character, born in prison, marries her way to society’s upper echelons. When her beauty fades, Flanders takes up a criminal life of pickpocketing to get by.

“She’s a scheming woman,” Nixon said. “And I was shocked. I thought past novels were about women in hoop skirts with their hands nicely folded in their laps. What is this? This woman is using her attractiveness and her smarts to move up in the world. It was fascinating because this wasn’t what the novel was supposed to be.”

Portrait of President Cheryl Nixon leaning against the railing of the second floor of the Lincoln Building.
Photo by Crystal Wylie ’05

This was the discovery of a young woman in college. At Tufts University near Boston, Nixon, who had dabbled in other areas of interest because she did not believe her love of reading could lead to a career, needed faculty to guide her and suggest who she really was, to help her understand the kind of mind she had.

“That really transformed my life,” she said. “I could become a professor. I never would have done that if I didn’t have faculty that really mentored me and said you could get a Ph.D. I didn’t know what a Ph.D. was.”

There were more early novels, books written by women about women, stories about women written before there were rules about who could write them and what sort of woman these epic stories should depict.

“This is in the 1700s,” Nixon explained, “when people are just learning to read. There were no rules to the novel, no rules about how you have to tell a story. These stories had women doing all sorts of crazy things. They would go off on great adventures. They became pirates and pickpockets, a sense of no holds barred. Women can do these risky things. It broke my expectations of what was possible. I wondered what we could create if there were no rules. What can we think about if we didn’t have to think in the way we’ve been trained to think?”

And so, she was hooked. Soon, Nixon was at Harvard, officially becoming an academic, an expert in the development of early English novels. She went to England, dug old books out of libraries, examined their stories. For her dissertation, Nixon compared the lives of orphans as depicted in 18th-century fiction to the lives of real-life orphans as related in 18th-century legal records. The court reports contained “juicy” stories that inspired early novels, the kind of now-classic narrative tropes where an orphan grows up to discover their royal or aristocratic lineage.

“One of the things I really grew to love as an academic is the physicality of the book,” Nixon explained. “I did a lot of work with rare books and special collections. I liked opening up a rare book and seeing lots of marginalia because it’s a trace of an earlier person’s reading methods. You can sort of see what they’re thinking through the marks they left.”

Once Nixon earned her Ph.D. from Harvard, she joined the faculty at the University of Massachusetts Boston, a large commuter school comprised of first-generation and often nontraditional, working students with families; 60 percent were people of color.

“I started my career as a teacher, conveying my love of reading and literature to students and trying to create dynamic classrooms where we could really talk and engage in deep conversation,” she said. “That’s where you become a really strong thinker, where you can debate ideas, listen to other interpretations and change your ideas. That’s the magic of a good classroom. I love that. I want to stress the importance of Berea’s innovative liberal arts classroom.”

Image of Dr. Cheryl Nixon and Dr. Lyle Roelofs laughing while sitting at a table in the President's Office.
Much joy and excitement came with the exchange of leadership between Dr. Lyle Roelofs and Dr. Cheryl Nixon. The two met several times between the announcement of Nixon’s selection as the 10th president in November 2022 and her officially taking the reins in July 2023. Photo by Nay Kaw ’23

Many of Nixon’s students were adult learners, returning to school while still working. Teaching these students sparked a passion within her to help underserved students transform their and their families’ lives.

Nixon’s love of teaching allowed her to move up the faculty ranks at UMass Boston, where she spent 17 years. Though she loved teaching, Nixon felt she could take the teaching concepts that created classroom magic and apply them across the institution.

“Rather than just having influence in the classroom, I could have that influence first within a department, then a college, then the university,” she said. “So, I started to work my way up and realized that’s where we could shape the ideas of how we wanted students to learn together campus wide. I could have a much bigger impact by determining what sort of policies we were going to set up but also what sort of innovative curriculum and programs we were going to imagine.”

That same influence would be spread internationally. Nixon wrote a Fulbright grant that allowed Iraqi scholars to attend a summer program in Boston to learn the cutting-edge higher education practices being implemented there.

Image of Dr. Cheryl Nixon posing with two students in the lobby of her home prior to graduation festivities.
Dr. Cheryl Nixon has a Students First mentality to her leadership. She enjoys having students in her home, like these December 2023 graduates. She wants to ensure they know she is there to listen to and support them.
Photo by Brooklynn Kenney

“We were able to get Iraqi professors excited about learning through hands-on activities, project-based learning, site-based learning, field trips, laboratory science and in-depth writing,” Nixon said. “For three summers, groups of scholars from Iraq worked with us to design great curriculum that they could bring back home. It was impactful for me, as our program focused on understanding how literature can help students engage in really meaningful conversations about big ideas.”

In 2019, Nixon began a four-year stint as provost and vice president for academic affairs at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado, which serves a large Native American population. While UMass Boston was urban and diverse, Fort Lewis allowed Nixon to educate a rural community with different needs.

Image of Dr. Cheryl Nixon walking down the hallway in the MAC Natural Sciences and Health building.
Photo by Crystal Wylie ’05

She enjoyed programmatic success in launching a nursing program at Fort Lewis in order to bring healthcare expertise to underserved rural populations. However, the biggest challenge was helping a small, rural college navigate the COVID-19 pandemic. Nixon called the global crisis “a shaping test,” an unexpected event that forces a person to adapt.

“Suddenly, I found that my career was being shaped by a global pandemic,” she said, “and my work as an administrator had to be tested as to how we set up systems and work with our campus to keep our students safe.”

Working with students, public health professors and other campus leaders, Nixon helped enact a health safety campaign centered around Native American understandings of community and interconnectedness. It was an effort to create a “community of care” based around the Navajo word k’é, which means kinship.

“That great campaign came from our students’ understanding of what would resonate with other students,” she said. “It was the idea of kinship, of mutual interdependency, of being a big, extended family. And that was part of our success in dealing with COVID.”

Portrait of Dr. Cheryl Nixon standing beside a large conference room table in Lincoln Hall.
Dr. Cheryl Nixon took the helm as Berea’s 10th President on July 1, 2023. A graduate of Tufts University and Harvard University, Nixon has served in administrations at the University of Massachusetts Boston and Fort Lewis College. Photo by Crystal Wylie ’05

As the peak of the pandemic receded, a new opportunity arose at Berea College. President Lyle Roelofs, who had also led a campus pandemic response, was retiring. Nixon, with her liberal arts background, her history of educating and supporting the underserved, and a renewed sense of the power of community, was thrilled to have the opportunity to apply to a college in Kentucky founded upon the ideals of educational access, gender equality and the kinship of all people. In Berea lay her next great adventure.

And she was ready for it. 

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